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Just How Rich Is Mary Jo White, Debevoise Partner and Likely Future SEC Chair?

Mary Jo White

Mary Jo White? More like Mary Jo Green. President Obama’s pick to lead the Securities and Exchange Commission is deliciously rich, as revealed in her financial disclosures.

Although she’s barely five feet tall, making her a little litigatrix, Mary Jo White wears big shoes. In the words of my colleague Elie Mystal, a former Debevoise & Plimpton associate, she’s “one of those alpha dog partners…. the kind of partner that makes other partners stammer, shuffle papers, and try to look really busy and intelligent when she’s in the room.”

The sizable net worth of Mary Jo White shouldn’t surprise anyone. Not only is she a longtime Debevoise partner, but her husband, John W. White, has been a partner at Cravath, Swaine & Moore for more than 25 years (interrupted from 2006 through 2008 by a stint at the SEC, actually, where he served as Director of the Division of Corporation Finance).

Let’s get a sense of Mary Jo White’s fortune….

White’s financial disclosure form can be accessed here, and her letter outlining the steps she’ll take to avoid conflicts of interest as SEC chair appears here. (The most notable step, which we mentioned in Morning Docket, is that her husband will move from equity to nonequity status at Cravath. As CSM’s first nonequity partner, John White will receive a fixed salary and a performance bonus, instead of a cut of the firm’s profits.)

Let’s start on the first page of the form. Even though Mary Jo White, the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, is one of the most formidable litigatrices in America, her signature is girlishly earnest. For starters, it’s legible. How many people with similar power and prestige have signatures you can actually read?

The heart of the disclosure is Schedule A, a listing of assets and their approximate values, which in White’s case spans four pages. Because the values are reported in ranges (e.g., $250,001 to $500,000, $500,001 to $1,000,000), and because the ranges top out at $5 million for Mary Jo White (as the filer) and $1 million for John White (as the filer’s spouse), we don’t know the exact total value of her assets, which is too bad. But Am Law Daily and DealBook have crunched the numbers and concluded that they amount to at least $16 million. (Most of the assets take the form of securities, but there are exceptions, including the Whites’ oddest asset: “40 acres farmland and unsold crops — Pocahontas County, IA.”)

Now, some might expect a senior Debevoise partner and a senior Cravath partner, both 65 years old, to have more than $16 million in assets. In the most recent Am Law 100 rankings, Debevoise profits per partner exceeded $2 million and Cravath profits per partner exceeded $3 million. Both Whites have been partners at their respective firms for many years, and presumably they’re smart investors as well. One might say: “Sixteen million is great, but it’s a far cry from the nine-figure net worth of late Skadden name partner Joe Flom.”

But please note: the Whites’ true wealth is surely much higher. First, $16 million assumes every listed asset is at the lowest end of the applicable range. Seven of their investments fall in the “$1,000,001 to $5,000,000″ range, and six more are in the “over $1,000,000 range,” which is all that has to be disclosed for assets owned solely by John White as the filer’s spouse (such as his capital account at Cravath). The $16 million figure assumes these assets are worth $1 million each or $7 million in total, when in reality they could be worth as much as $35 million in total.

Second, filers are generally not required to disclose the value of their primary residences. We’re guessing the Whites have several million dollars in equity in their Manhattan apartment. (Elie’s been to the Whites’ home for Debevoise events, and apparently it’s a spectacular floor-through apartment in an elite co-op building.)

Third, the $16 million figure does not include a liquidated amount for Mary Jo White’s interest in Debevoise & Plimpton’s unfunded partnership retirement plan. That entitles her to receive $42,500 a month upon retirement, or $510,000 a year. As stated in White’s ethics letter, within 60 days of her appointment, “the firm will make a lump sum payment, in lieu of making monthly retirement payments for the next four years.” So that should add a tidy sum to White’s assets.

Schedule A also includes information about the filer’s income. Last year, as a Debevoise partner, White earned a little more than $2.4 million. That might seem like a lot to an ordinary lawyer, but someone with White’s book of business could make several times that at a rival firm. Lockstep firms like Debevoise and Cravath have their virtues, and superstars like Mary Jo White give up extra compensation to avail themselves of those virtues. (And some superstars who leave lockstep firms live to regret it. As former Debevoise partner Ralph Ferrara remarked, after the downfall of Dewey & LeBoeuf, his post-Debevoise home, “leaving Debevoise ended up being an imprudent decision.”)

Schedule B lists notable transactions, gifts, reimbursements, and travel expenses. Schedule C lists liabilities. White had nothing to report under either section. (Note that mortgages on primary residences are excluded.)

Schedule D requires the filer to list notable positions held. Mary Jo White serves on the boards or as a trustee of various non-profits, including the ASPCA, the Citizens Crime Commission, and the Riot Relief Fund. She also serves on the board of visitors of her alma mater, Columbia Law School. But as she explains in her ethics letter, she plans to resign from these positions if confirmed to the SEC.

Congratulations to Mary Jo White on her vast wealth, and best of luck to her in the upcoming confirmation process. She’s an eminently qualified nominee to chair the SEC, and if she is confirmed, we will all be richer for her service — even if not as rich as Mary Jo White.

P.S. We’re planning a follow-up story about the financial disclosures of wealthy lawyers appointed to top positions in the Obama Administration — e.g., Attorney General Eric Holder, former Defense Department General Counsel Jeh Johnson, and various judicial appointees (such as Judge Paul Engelmayer and Judge Katherine Forrest, both of the S.D.N.Y.). If you’d like to flag someone for our attention, please email us or text us (646-820-8477). Thanks.

Public Financial Disclosure Report: Mary Jo White [U.S. Office of Government Ethics via Am Law Daily]
Letter to Shira Pavis Minton by Mary Jo White [Securities and Exchange Commission via Am Law Daily]
Mary Jo White’s Husband to Step Down From Cravath Equity Partnership Upon Confirmation [Am Law Daily via Morning Docket]
S.E.C. Nominee Discloses Law Firm Wealth [DealBook / New York Times]

Earlier: Obama Throws Down The Gauntlet With New Pick To Head The SEC

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